First Responders

Georgia Whodunit: The Case of the Body Snarled in Briars

February 8, 2022Joshua Skovlund

Jones County Sheriff’s deputies were called Feb. 3, 2022, to investigate a dead body found at Georgia’s Hitchiti Experimental Forest, about 80 miles south of Atlanta. Jones County Sheriff’s Office photo.

It was late in the afternoon Thursday, Feb. 3, when Jones County Sheriff R.N. “Butch” Reece got to the body snarled in briars, deep in the pines of Georgia’s Hitchiti Experimental Forest.

The dispatcher told the gathering group of law enforcement officers that a Georgia Department of Natural Resources employee had spotted her near Caney Creek while walking the woods to prep for a controlled burn.

The sheriff’s mind strayed to May 26, 1984, when deputies pulled out a man’s body near Caney Creek, about a mile east of the Jarrell Plantation, just below the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, a little more than an hour’s drive south of Atlanta.

The dead man wore khaki trousers, a black pinkie ring, and, deep inside his body, the bullet that had killed him.  

body snarled in briars
Unidentified remains: Jones County, Male 1188244451. Georgia Bureau of Investigation image.

It took investigators more than three decades to identify Male 1188244451, and an experienced lawman like Reece never forgets cases like that.

Caney Creek.

“I thought, ‘Uh-oh. Here we go again,’” Reece told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Reece also was mulling a rash of violence over the past several months. There was the Jones County High School shooting on Dec. 11. Then one of his deputies had narrowly survived an ambush six weeks later. They’d also recently found an old man’s dead and malnourished body along the Cheehaw Trail.

One of Reece’s deputies was rushing to meet up with him, lights on, siren blaring. Matthew Dennis, 39, had been finishing a report in his cruiser after back-to-back-to-back 911 calls when the words “dead body” flashed across his screen.  

It could be his big break. If he could solve this case, it might even bump him up to investigator.

body snarled in briars
Body camera footage from a Jones County Sheriff’s deputy captured the moment just before he was shot on Jan. 23, 2022. His body armor was credited with saving the deputy’s life. The suspect is in custody. Still from Jones County Sheriff’s Office footage.

“Most people like to, you know, run traffic, write tickets, and find dope,” Dennis told Coffee or Die. “I like a good domestic or a burglary, you know? The ‘whodunit.’ That’s my niche, you know? Trying to figure out what exactly happened and try and get the bad guy in jail.”

Dennis arrived at the site where the body had been found, in some bushes growing off to the side of a firebreak. More officers began to trickle in: Reece’s chief deputy, Maj. Earl Humphries; a pair of narcotics investigators, Barron Hall and Crystal Murphy; and a trio of criminal investigators, Lt. Kenny Gleaton, Lt. Kenny Allen, and Investigator John Simmons.

Along with Patrol Lt. Wesley Ransom and Capt. Travis Douglas, they began to process the grisly crime scene.

Watching heroic New York City Police officers rush into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, convinced Jones County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Dennis to become a cop. Jones County Sheriff’s Office photo.

Dennis and Gleaton stared into the scrub at a dirt-streaked woman wearing Under Armour socks. Her head was severed. Her dead eyes stared back at the men, like two emeralds in a mud puddle.

“I’m looking at her head and she’s got really pretty green eyes,” Dennis recalled. “The eyes are usually the first thing to go with animals and, you know, all that.”

Which didn’t seem to make sense to Dennis. And the more he looked at the woman, the less sense it all made. Her limbs were too rigid, her joints bending her shoulders, hips, and legs too slack. And her skin glimmered like supple silicone. 

Gleaton also said it didn’t seem right. There wasn’t that sickly sweet smell of rotting flesh.

Dennis turned to him. “Lieutenant, is this a … is this a sex doll? I think this is a sex doll.”

Identified remains: Jones County, Mannequin “Selena.” Jones County Sheriff’s Office photo.

The whole crime scene team exhaled at once in relief. Then they began to crack up. The murder probe had morphed into a littering case after only about five minutes of skullduggery.

As the deputies manhandled the mannequin from the brush, they began making an inventory: two different heads, wigs, women’s unmentionables, eyeballs that were different colors.

Knowing the tomfoolery of cops, Reece grumbled to his deputies that he didn’t want to see that doll again. But he also wasn’t surprised when he rolled into the parking lot on Friday and spotted the plastic woman propped up against an investigator’s truck.

They call her “Selena,” and she’s been exiled to a shed. But Reece suspects she’ll return for a prank “somewhere around Christmas.”

“We certainly do our job, I think really well,” the sheriff told Coffee or Die. “But we have a sense of humor and some common sense around here.”

Read Next: Twin Falls Rescuers Race To Save Fallen Idaho Ice Climber

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.

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